Lecture - The High Cost of Free Services: Problems with Surveillance Capitalism

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

North City Tech Meetup, Monday, October 7, 2019, 7pm to 9pm at the Lake Forest Park Library, Town Center LFP, 17171 Bothell Way NE, Lake Forest Park 98155. Free – Open to the public, no reservation required. 


The High Cost of Free Services: 
Problems with Surveillance Capitalism 
and Possible Alternatives for IT Infrastructure
with Alan Borning

This talk is suitable for the general public, anyone who is interested in or concerned about how companies are using your personal data may wish to attend. 


A large portion of the software side of our information technology infrastructure, including web search, email, social media, transportation information, and much more, is provided "free" to the end users, although the corporations that provide this are often enormously profitable.

The business model involves customized advertising and behavior manipulation, powered by intensive gathering and cross-correlation of personal information. Significant other parts of our IT infrastructure use fees-for-service but still involve intensive information gathering and behavior manipulation. 

There are significant indirect costs of these business models, including loss of privacy, supporting surveillance by both corporations and the state, automated manipulations of behavior, undermining the democratic process, and consumerism with its attendant environmental costs. 
In a recent book, Shoshana Zuboff terms this "surveillance capitalism."

How could we develop new models for providing these services?

I'll describe some intermediate steps toward those models: education, regulation, and resistance.  
Following that, I'll discuss a partial solution, involving for-profit corporations that provide these services without tracking personal information. 
Finally, I'll describe desired characteristics for more comprehensive solutions, and outline a range of such solutions for different portions of the IT infrastructure that more truly return control to the end users. 

This talk is based on joint work with Marvin Landwehr and Volker Wulf at the University of Siegen, Germany. 

Alan Borning
Alan Borning is Professor Emeritus in the Paul G Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, where he was a faculty member from 1980 to 2016. He was also an Adjunct Professor in the Information School.

He received a B.A. from Reed College in mathematics (1971) and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Computer Science (1979). 

For the first half of his time at UW his research was primarily in constraint-based languages and systems. 

Later, he turned from programming languages to various research topics in the area of human computer interaction, including work on using and evolving value sensitive design; on OneBusAway (a set of tools to make public transportation more accessible, easier, and more fun to use); on systems to support civic engagement and deliberation; and on UrbanSim, a modeling system for simulating the development of urban areas over periods of 20-30 years.

Post-retirement projects include continuing work on OneBusAway, and also the SEED project, which seeks to work on larger issues around sustainability and economics. (The surveillance capitalism work to be presented in the talk is one activity under the SEED project.) 

The North City Tech Meetup is a free meetup, usually the first Monday of each month at one of our local libraries: Lake Forest Park, Shoreline or Kenmore. People of all levels of interest and experience are encouraged to attend. There is always time for introductions and discussions.

Visit the Meetup.com page for each month’s topic.



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